LAFF: Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard, Michael Barker Get Spirit of Independence Award

Tom Bernard and Michael Barker
Tom Bernard and Michael Barker
 Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics, were honored by the Los Angeles Film Festival on Monday night, when they were presented with the fest's Spirit of Independence Award. Before a screening at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live of 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which they released in the U.S. where it grossed $128.1 million, they participated in a conversation with the festival's artistic director David Ansen joined by surprise guest director Ang Lee, who directed Tiger, and James Schamus, the former CEO of Focus Features who was one of Tiger's screenwriters. 

"These guys were the Holy Grail," Schamus said of Barker and Bernard, "and then my ruthless horrific competition for 12 years when I was at Focus."

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The films that Bernard and Barker have released have collected 32 Oscars, earning 28 of those since founding SPC in 1992. When Ansen asked them to explain their odds-defying winning streak, Barker said he and Bernard are "two halves of the brain that work together." Both credited their faith in filmmakers, starting with their first influential fans, directors Akira Kurosawa and Louis Malle, who spread the word about them. And they also acknowledged their firm rein on costs. "When people call us cheap, we smile," said Bernard.

Barker, Bernard, Schamus and Lee razzed each other for over an hour in fondly sarcastic tones as they recalled working together — and also competing. "When I met Michael, he was selling 16 mm films to prisons and [George Wallace's assassin] Arthur Bremer was one of his clients," Bernard said. "James was nominated for best original song [as well as adapted screenplay for Tiger]," he added.

"They love to needle me about that," responded Schamus. "Bob Dylan was up [for best song], Bjork was up, and I said, 'I worship Bob Dylan. I voted for Bob Dylan.' Ang said, 'Oh, so did I.' And I go, 'F— you!' Seriously, I could've lost by one vote."

"I found out Ang [had become] a member of the Academy, and Crouching Tiger was nominated for best foreign film, and [voters] had to see all five films," said Barker. "So I got Ang a car to see all five in New York. Then he said, 'I have a problem — Amores Perros is the best film.' He probably didn't even vote for his own film!"

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"We joke about Oscars because we have them," joked Lee in response.

Ansen asked Bernard and Barker about their past working with IMAX. "I don't associate you with IMAX," Ansen said. "When we came to Sony, they were deep in the IMAX business," Barker explained. "On Wings of Courage, the camera broke 90 times a day." Added Bernard, "It sounded like a lawnmower."

Everything has changed since Barker and Bernard first became partners at United Artists in 1979, "Independent cinema is bigger than ever, with more access to the mass audience," Bernard said. "If you make a film today, it will be seen somewhere, and that is a very big deal." Added Barker, "The top five foreign films tend to do better than before, but for the smaller films it's harder. But A Separation did $7 million," while The Lunchbox just passed $4 million. "There's more places to see films — Netflix, iTunes or Snagfilms," explained Bernard, and you have to think of every revenue stream you can: DVD, airlines, international.

The two said they often had to advocate the auteur theory against suits who don't get it. "After Crouching Tiger showed in Cannes," explained Barker, "John Calley at Sony said, 'Listen, I just got a call from someone at another studio ... '"

"They had mouse ears," said Schamus.

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"They said, 'You should dub it and take it away from those [SPC] guys.' And then that film made $128 million [plus $85 million foreign], subtitled in English," crowed Barker. Schamus noted that Tiger cost $14 million, and Ansen observed, "Crouching Tiger is the most successful foreign film ever."

In writing the screenplay, Schamus said, rather than try to create Chinese characters, he tried to write them "to be as Jewish as possible." He also noted he intentionally wrote for a cross-global audience, "in International Subtitle style," and that because he knows French, he supervised the French subtitles, and made the Italian and other subtitled versions use the French subtitles as a model, not the English ones.

Barker and Bernard, who championed 2006's The Lives of Others to an Oscar and BAFTA after it was rejected by Cannes, Berlin, Venice and the New York Film Festival, said their enthusiasm for film sometimes outruns that of the filmmakers themselves. "Eric Rohmer said, 'Why do you buy my movies?' recalled Bernard. "Searching for Sugarman we wanted to buy before we saw it. They were so freaked out by our enthusiasm they said, 'You have to watch it first.'" Said Barker, "It was the same with Talk to Her. [PedroAlmodovar sent us the screenplay, and I read, 'Film goes to black, silent movie, man becomes tiny, jumps into woman's vagina.' I yell to Tom — we have offices next to each other — 'Tom, have you gotten to that page yet?' Tom said, 'I guess we just close our eyes and do it.'" Almodovar won a Golden Globe and a screenplay Oscar thanks to SPC's sixth sense for art-house hits.

"You shouldn't really be making films," said Barker, "unless it's personal."

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